all images are extracted from the book Pro Domo by Yona Friedman. Barcelona: Actar 2006
The understanding of Yona Friedman‘s work can be said to be disturbed by its popularity. His Ville Spatiale, just like Constant’s New Babylon, suffers from its architectural formalization that is immediately categorized as a 60′s megastructure that simply allows a second level to the existing city. Those prejudices are not helped by the fact that Yona Friedman develops a simplicity of language and of drawing (whether we are talking about his perspectives than his graphic novels) which makes him appear as a gentle naive idealist to the reader who would pass too quickly on his work (and that’s something the blogosphere definitely allows).
For a very long time if you were reading French, you would probably be easily able to go further in his research; from now on, this is also easy in English, as Actar published the book Pro Domo which gathers an important amount of his texts, research and projects. Within the frame of this article, I also translated in English the interview Martin Le Bourgeois and myself had done of Y. Friedman in 2007 for our Undergraduate Thesis.
The Ville Spatiale as a principle can be said to be Yona Friedman’s only work that he spent fifty years to explore and redraw again and again. However, it is fascinating to observe the ensemble of approaches that he took in order to fully understand what was at stake in this project and how to actually make it happen to a small or a big scale. Before enumerating them, it seems important to re-affirm what the Ville Spatiale is about, as it has been too often shaded by its radical representation:
The Ville Spatiale is an architectural mean of the democratization of urban design built up by the citizen themselves. It advocates for an architecture without plans that adapts to people’s desire and implement a negotiation between neighbors. The Architect is only an adviser and in charge of designing the (infra)structure that will provide space and necessary resources for the city to grow.
As I wrote above, it is fascinating to observe the several approaches that Yona Friedman took the time to choose in order to make his project the most coherent as possible. He invents, or reinterpret all kind of structures that he calls “irregular” and that are mostly characterized by the fact that it uses “poor” materials. He proposes a technocratic vision of the “Continent City” in which high speed trains are used as subways (similarly to Western Europe or Japan since then) He advocates for a holistic vision of the world based on the way dogs interpret what they “see”. The last sentence of the first chapter illustrates to which extent he is attached to this animality: “I must still give special thanks to my dog, who helped me to open my eyes and perceive the representation of the world by another species, a non-human species.” He is also a political thinker theorizing a social contract based on division of areas of governance in which the “critical group size” is not reached neither is the “valency” (the largest number of influences which can be assimilated by a human being during a given reference time) overtaken.
His scientific approach is also very interesting to study. In 1970, he worked with a team from the MIT to create a special computer that would organize the democratic organization of the Ville Spatiale. The computer was asking a person his spatial preferences for his house, then advised him depending on his way of life, studied the possibilities depending on the neighbors and eventually adapted the plan to the restrictions of structure, light, access and ventilation. It’s interesting to notice that Y. Friedman was thus already establishing a parametric architecture in 1970. Although, the computer itself is not important and was then rejected by him as it was not considering enough the long process of decision accomplished by humans. What is important in this experience is that the whole process of decisions and preferences with its confrontation to reality had been translated in simple and applicable rules (as it was needed for the computer) and one can therefore easily imagine such a process applied to a real project whether this one should be as important as the Ville Spatiale and on a smaller scale.
Yona Friedman’s obsession is deeply humanist as, in fifty years, he never doubted of the ability and the right for everyone to build his (her) dwelling in a negotiation with each other. This process is already occurring in the slums of the world (Y. Friedman also studied how we can re-use garbage to build our cities) who have, in addition of that, to adopt defense strategies in order to exist in a status that is defined as illegal by the authority. This interpretation also works with Y. Friedman’s argument for a poor world, chapter that can be also read in this precious book.